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His business card says “Oppenheimer Strategies.” But for Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) the wannabe titular dealmaker in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, “Bullshit Artist” might be a more accurate descriptor.
Written and directed by Academy Award-nominated Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, the film follows Norman’s feeble attempts to connect those who need things, with those who have them. This is no small task, given that Norman’s connections are about as authentic as the wife he pretends to have, and the apartment he pretends to live in. Sure, his nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen), occasionally uses his attorney contacts to open a door, but Norman ritually bungles the deal, once he walks through it. It doesn’t help that he’s excruciatingly oblivious to all social boundaries. To Norman, stalking a businessman on his morning jog, or gate-crashing a private dinner party, is just part of doing business.
Maybe that’s why the only person who takes him seriously is out-of-towner Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli politician who Norman ambushes outside a luxury Manhattan clothing boutique. Norman somehow ends up buying his new friend a $1,000 pair of shoes – a gesture that pays off when Eshel becomes Israeli Prime Minister three years later. Norman uses his sudden access to the global elite to knit a tapestry of quid pro quo transactions that link the Prime Minister with a New York rabbi, an Ivory Coast treasurer and a powerful financier. Even Harvard’s Dean of Admissions gets caught up in Norman’s kaleidoscopic web. And when his house of cards comes crashing down, international calamity looms in its wake.
The film was influenced by the fable of the Court Jew, in which a Jewish man offers a gift to a down-and-out nobody who gains power and brings the Jew into his court, only to bounce him out later.
“I was looking for a modern counterpart and landed on the idea of a “fixer” – someone who helps powerful people get things they want, by taking actions they are unwilling to openly do themselves,” explains Cedar. “These kinds of people continue to exist today, because they are necessary, even though they are often scorned for it.”
Cedar and Gere talked to Script Magazine about their collaboration, discussing character backstories, sexual ambiguity, and the amazing healing powers of pickled herring.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Script: Richard, did playing such a desperate character take a psychic toll on you?
Richard Gere: No, not at all. It was more of a psychic toll to play Iago than to play a character like this, because there’s really no emotional darkness in Norman. He completely believes everything he says, and he thinks every interaction should be taken at face value. Of course, beneath the surface, there’s obviously an element of self-loathing in Norman, but his consciousness won’t go there. Instead, Joseph and I discussed the idea that Norman’s body is rebelling from who he is. He gets itchy; he’s always scratching; he gets hives. His body goes where his mind won’t.
Script: Does that survival mechanism allow him to perpetuate the hustle?
RG: He doesn’t see it as a hustle. He’s “providing.” He’s genuine when he says, “I’m just trying to help. How can I help?” That’s completely on par for him.
Script: A character of Eshel’s sophistication would realize Norman is just posturing, so does he accept the friendship out of compassion, or because he believes Norman’s influences can help him?
RG: I don’t think it’s about influence at all. I think it was a falling-in-love scenario, and Joseph created a moment with the most confidence a director can have. He just set up the camera and let the actors play out the scene. We shot it with the actual sound of me talking to Lior Ashkenazi, but then removed the sound to make it a silent scene. It’s the “dumb show” outside that store window, where you see the physicality of these two people. They move closer together, there’s a touch, then there’s a separation, then there’s a little bit more touch, then a laugh… It’s Charlie Chaplin. You’re seeing a relationship happen.
Script: Was there a latent homoerotic attraction — at least from Norman to Eshel?
RG: No. No.
Joseph Cedar: I think an attraction is somewhere in there.
RG: Well, there’s going to be some kind of energy between these guys. Is Norman gay? Is Eshel gay? Highly unlikely. But these are questions viewers will ask, regardless. Sexually, just where is Norman?
JC: Norman is attractive. Not in the usual physical way, but he makes it easy for Eshel to accept the gift from him. I think there’s something mutual there. For Eshel to accept the gift, he has to feel that he’s not completely taking advantage of Norman, and that he’s returning something. And that thing is affection.
Script: Richard, did you ask Joseph about Norman’s backstory, to help you better understand the character and inspire your performance?
RG: I asked all of the actor questions, and he didn’t have answers to any of them.
JC: Part of the experience of encountering Norman, for the audience and for Richard, is not knowing where he comes from, and not knowing what’s real in his life. But I do have a backstory.
RG: The important thing is that you believe what you see in the moment. We never see Norman go to an apartment, so it’s important that you believe that the synagogue is his home — whether that makes rational sense or not. It’s where he goes to when he’s in trouble and when he wants warmth, food and acceptance… He doesn’t have to be “Norman” when he’s at the synagogue.
Script: Speaking of the synagogue, there’s a scene where Norman raids the temple fridge and eats pickled herring on a Ritz cracker. What made you think of writing such a bizarre food choice for Norman?
JC: When we were scouting locations for the synagogue in New York, all of them had kitchens in the basement, and every time the production team opened up the cupboards, there were jars of pickled herring. This happened at every single synagogue we visited.
Script: Art imitates life.
JC: There’s a certain way of growing up where you’re taught to crave herring. It’s hard to convince someone who hasn’t grown up that way, but when you’re hungry and really feeling bad about yourself, and you want to spoil yourself with something that’ll give you a good feeling, herring is always the answer. And for Norman, he was just kicked out of a dinner party before a gourmet meal was served, and he needed his fix, so he eats herring at the synagogue.
RG: He also needed to hear the cantor sing and the music, and he needed the comfort of that basement. That kitchen and that refrigerator — that’s his home.
Script: Richard, did you actually consume the herring? Because the way they cut the scene, it looked like there might have been a swap out.
JC: Don’t tell! Don’t tell.
RG: All I can say is that Joseph and I talked about that moment, and Joseph said, “I want the audience to feel the hit of ammonia and the pickle juices when the herring first hits [Norman’s] tongue. I want that sensory overload.”
JC: I read something [director] Steve McQueen said about creating images that provide actual sensations for the audience, like in his film Hunger, where you see someone washing his hands after a fistfight, and you can feel the water running over his bloody knuckles. My version of giving a non-visual sensation is to convey the taste and smell of Norman eating herring. Nothing is more vivid.
Script: What about the fistfuls of Mike and Ike candy that Norman guzzles throughout the movie? Richard, did you have any input on the candy you’d be consuming in such vast quantities?
RG: I did have a discussion with the director on that issue. Sometimes I won discussions and sometimes I lost. And in this case, I lost. I said to Joseph, “Give me something I might actually like,” and he said, “Nope. It’s got to be Mike and Ike’s. That’s what I want.”
JC: I appreciate Richard going along with this very unhealthy thing we gave the character. But it had a purpose. I can go through the script and tell you exactly when Norman needs a sugar rush to keep energized, because he has to keep moving in order to keep his head above water. Sugar is part of that. So, every time I felt Norman would sink into tiredness, I injected a kick of sugar into the story.
Script: I thought the empty calories of the candy symbolized Norman’s empty promises.
JC: (Laughs) Forget the symbolism.
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